The uses of Ted Kennedy

Many Senate Democrats must have mixed feellings about passing the Senate health care bill. No doubt, they are pleased to have passed legislation that would signiificantly increase the number of Americans with health insurance while substantially expanding the government’s control of the health care industry.
But many Senators must be stung by the harsh criticism of the bill’s substance by their leftist base. Some may also be stung by the equally harsh criticism of the process associated with the bill’s passage that has been leveled by “good government” types like David Broder. And at least a few are probably wondering whether their vote will cost them re-election.
It is in this context, I think, that we should understand the constant references to Ted Kennedy by Senate Democrats, as recounted today by Dana Milbank. “One after the other,” reports Milbank, “Senate colleagues invoked [Kennedy’s] name in a manner more often associated with his slain brothers.” What better way to boost morale than to repeat over and over that this one was for Teddy?
As Milbank points out, however, it is not clear that the “liberal lion” would have been thrilled with the bill the Senate passed. Indeed, he might well have shared Howard Dean’s view that it is too weak to represent much of an accomplishment, if any.
Ultimately, how one thinks Kennedy would have viewed the bill depends on how one thinks of Kennedy. If Kennedy was, above all, a Senate insider and party man (my view), then I think he would have been happy enough to see this version of health care legislation pass. But if Kennedy was predominantly a “liberal lion,” then he likely would have had serious misgivings.
It was the ultimate Senate insider, Robert Byrd, who most powerfully invoked Ted Kennedy, exclaiming from his wheelchair, as he voted for the bill, “this is for my friend Ted Kennedy.” There’s some irony here. In 1971, Byrd ousted Kennedy from his position as Senate Majority Whip, defeating him 31-24 in the wake of the Chappaquiddick scandal. Kennedy is supposed to have later told Byrd that the defeat was a blessing because it allowed him to become a forceful advocate for liberal issues instead of purely a party man.
But if Byrd and his colleagues are correct that the Senate vote would have warmed Kennedy’s heart, then I submit he was a party man, not an issues man, to the end.


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